Since Pat and I are in a hurry up and wait mode before our life begins on high speed again, we have been looking at places around our area in Central Florida which we have yet to experience. Through a friend of a friend, I learned of a Facebook page called E.A.R.S., this page represents a sanctuary which rescues wild animals in need of a forever home.
The E.A.R.S sanctuary is located just outside of Ocala in a small town called Citra. I looked up some info on surrounding campgrounds and found one within 12 miles of the place. I reserved 5 nights at the Grand Lakes RV Resort and thought we could dig our teeth into an area which we have never really been to or have heard much about.
First off, the RV park is huge, tons of wide, paved spaces, equally spread out on a huge plot of land. We spent our arrival day here walking the dogs about, getting our bearings in regards to the pool, bar, restaurant and workout room. This park is probably bigger than the entire island of Cedar Key with 3 times more people that inhabit it. It’s very quiet and extremely well kept. I could walk around and look at the variety of RV Sites for days. They have everything from Airstreams, Truck Campers, Prevost Coaches to Park Models with full skirts and attached screened-in porches with huge decks and fire places. Each site has individual yard ornaments and gardens so it’s not cookie cutter by any means.
The wildlife in the RV park is very delightful, as we have so far seen Red Wing Black Birds, Sand Hill Cranes walking right up and down the streets, Blue and Green Herons, Hawks, Osprey, a big herd of Cows – just outside the fence line, a pair of Bald Eagles (that we know of) and I’m sure many more creatures that we are yet to see since we have only been here for 24 hours. They have a fenced in dog park which Honey and Little enjoyed as well as a golf course which we will never see (The only way I’d ever get Pat on a Golf Course is if he could shoot at the golf balls like skeet). The price of the place is very reasonable and I would definitely recommend it if you are in the area or passing through the Ocala area.
Our tour of the E.A.R.S. Sanctuary wouldn’t begin till 2 pm, so we got an early start and hit the Saturday morning Farmers Market in the historical square of downtown Ocala. Neither Pat nor I had any idea what to expect in Ocala? My thoughts were of a strip mall sort of town, surrounded by horse farms, as that’s what we normally see while driving down I-75 or passing through to go to South Florida….boy was I wrong!
Ocala has a rich history and was locally incorporated in 1868, the streets are lined with historical buildings, a beautiful town square and a great small town feel with tons of places to enjoy eats and treats. After spending the morning walking around, I got my fill at the farmers market and we hurried on out to meet the tour.
As we pulled into the parking lot Pat looked at me and said, “Oh man, I was afraid this was going to be like this”. What he meant by that is we saw beautiful large creatures in enclosures, not terribly small enclosures, but yet they were contained. Everything that I saw of their FB page was so positive, I was saddened by this. I said, “Let’s just give it a chance, all these reviews can’t be wrong”.
We entered the sanctuary and were greeted by volunteers which showed us where to park. We were then guided in the direction of the lion, tiger and liger enclosures or containments as they call them. We were immediately aware that it is fall in Florida and bugs are in heaven right now, fortunately they supplied bug spray since we had left ours at home. If you visit, which I highly recommend, I’d suggest you bring copious amounts of bug spray.
We looked around and saw people delivering packs of chicken, gallons of bleach and other things that would be helpful to the organization as it runs 100% off of Donations. Again in this tiny group of contributors, we felt a great sense of community . We had to sign-in and sign a waiver basically saying that if I’m an idiot and don’t respect boundaries that are clearly displayed, the sanctuary is not responsible. No one took any money from me or asked us for money, there is a donation box on the table and people put in what they wanted. On their web page they do suggest a fee for the tour, however there was no pressure to pay or donate, Bonus!! This gave us all the more reason to donate more.
The volunteers, which at any point can range from a P.A., a Chemist, a Biologist and even a Physicist, to just an animal loving individual that has decide to donate their time doing what they love. They split the large group of visitors in two different groups and each went off in different directions since they had so many visitors.
We began our tour at the containment of Sebastian, the Barbary Lion with the beautiful black mane who is 13 years old and is only one of around 250 of his kind left on the planet. All of the Barbary Lions are in captivity at this point, most have been hunted to extinction in the wild. He is big and regal and looks as though he knows we are all here to see him. He yawns, breathes heavily under the canopy of large oaks and watches all of us humans cat calling him and talking to him like a house cat that has gotten out. I’m sure he must find this amusing, knowing that we could be lunch for him at any time if need be.
At this point our guide explains to us that the large field behind Sebastian is actually his back yard however he loves to lay in the containment area on the lifted platform so he can rest in the shade the containment provides for him. We then noticed that the door to the pen was open the entire time. He was coaxed out of his lazy slumber to the yard where he immediately marked his territory, pushed a few leaves out of his way and rested in the tall grasses rolling around on his back and stretching out in the afternoon sunshine. Sebastian did not fail to entertain however, eventually going to the far side of his yard and building up his lungs for the finishing act of bellowing a lions roar to put a smile on all of our faces.
At maybe 20 minutes into our tour I could feel the respect that the volunteer guides had for these huge helpless animals. All had been neglected, refused or just damaged by people who felt the need to have one of these majestic creatures in their homes as a pet, were selfish, uneducated or ignorant….bad situations which they had been placed in but were luckily rescued to live out their lives being well fed and taken care of here at this sanctuary.
Never at any point did we hear a handler say, “They are just such big babies and lovable out of place creatures”. They knew that these 500 to a 1000 pound animals could do damage to anyone or anything if the situation was just right. They’re simply trying to allow these damaged animals some quiet, normalcy after being damaged. I have always wondered how hard it would be to keep that distance, there must always be a respect kept, however one could build up a trust, begin to get closer and regret it afterwards.
The next enclosure we came to was Odin the Liger…..WOW is he beautiful! His markings and his size were something to just stare in awe at. Odin weighs in at just under 1000lbs and is NOT full grown. He lives with his best friend Tameri, a female tiger. We were told that when they arrived they were a package deal, both had failed to fulfill their owners requirements and were no longer wanted. They were best friends, unable to mate, but inseparable. I guess due to the man made science project of artificial insemination, a hybrid cross between a male lion and a female tiger, all Ligers are sterile.
These two amazingly beautiful animals laid on their platform, basically arm in arm grooming and hugging each other, their care for each other was obvious. These two big cats also have a huge “Turn Out”, the term that was used by the guide, to go wander around in and one even had a big pond for them to frolic in if they wanted, since both Tigers and especially Ligers like to swim. One of the best things we learned, something I found appalling, was the State of Florida only requires very small enclosures for these animals to live in. Basically enough room for the animal to stand up in and maybe turn around.
Every containment area the animals at the E.A.R.S. Sanctuary were housed in was quadruple what they said the State minimum would require. They told us that as they raise more money, they add to each area so their containment areas are always getting larger as the donations come in. And that’s just the containment areas. The ‘Turn Outs‘ are very large pieces of land with big mature trees, dirt, grasses and natural habitats for them to walk, run or climb. Obviously not like they’d have in the wild, but 1000x’s better than where they came from.
As we walked through the park I began to feel a warming of the heart, each of the animals that have found a permanent home here have a story behind them. Most had been bred to fill a purpose for a magic show, a photography studio or some sort of entertainment purpose for humans. One human that thought they could keep a 300 pound cat in a small condo and that would be healthy for them!?!?! Another human raised a bobcat in her living room and had repeated visits to the ER with scratches and wounds that needed mending. When this secret was out, animal rescue stepped in and replaced the wild cat here at the sanctuary since it had been raised from a cub in captivity, they know it would never be able to fend for itself in the wild.
I remembered going to a circus with my sister when I was in my teens, Ringling Bros were under a big tent with a man in a top hat snapping a whip and forcing huge animals to sit on tiny stool with a chair and a whip…..that was my last circus I ever went to. I had no ideas of animal rights at that point in my life, however I could see the confusion in the animals and I never wanted to see that again, and I was only in my teens.
Now, take me to a water show!! I loved to watch the whales jump and play as well as all of those slithery creatures that seemed so happy. Then came the documentary Blackfish, never, ever again will I contribute to the containment of any facility that captures and keeps animals for human entertainment, period. Taking this tour of E.A.R.S. gave me all the more reason to hold that value forever.
Every animal had a story, from Diva the Tiger that can’t have roommates because she is well, a Diva. She lived in a 3’X6′ containment cage and was brought to exhibitions and shown for the price of a ticket. Three friendly deer that had been found on the side of the road by their deceased mother but wouldn’t leave her alone, Tafari and Odoki the African spotted Leopards that were kept malnourished to keep them under the 25 pound weight zone so they can be brought to areas and have their picture taken with children. The funny little show that the Capuchin Monkeys put on for us, clapping and jumping and playing. I wondered why their tongues hung out of their mouth and found out that they had their teeth removed because they were ‘Grinder Monkeys‘ and were used on street corners to earn change for their owners. Their teeth had been removed so they could not bite someone that might try and touch them on the streets.
This is my last story which actually brought tears to my ears, this is the story of Dr. and Mrs. Kidambi, two black bears that had been kept in captivity for the purpose of breading and selling their offspring. First off, let me say that none of the animals that we saw look under duress at any point, no pacing, no digging, no weird crazy eyes or any of that stuff, they all seemed happy, lazy and at home in the places that have been dedicated for them, that is till we saw Mrs. Kidambi.
She paced back and forth in her containment area, she seemed misplaced like the world just wasn’t right for her. The guide explained to us that bears in the wild keep their cubs for years, never leaving their sides until they are 2 sometimes 4 years old. This mother bear never had that chance, she continually had her babies taken from her before she could raise and nurture them. This broke my heart, I knelt down in front of the cage and just watched her for a minute, she stopped and looked at me and a tear rolled down my face, she put both of her paws on the fence right in front of me and just looked at me for probably a minute, her nose was sniffing the air and her kind eyes just looked at mine, for a brief minute I felt like I was connected to her and it was magical. Then someone else walked up and she turned and walked away, only to continue her pacing.
This was the end of our tour, I had to hurry to the truck, because I know Pat would have made fun of me for crying and I would have punched him in front of the people on the tour. As we were driving out, I said to Pat, “So what did you think?” Pat said “I am so thankful for some place like this, it is unfortunately a very needed place.”
My wrap up on E.A.R.S., I am so grateful that so many people support this sanctuary, but I am so sad that it is so needed. The animals that are housed here are loved and well cared for, the containments were spotless, no odors, no small containments and no animals that looked stressed. The areas that are provided always need improvements and food always has to be provided, just as in our homes. There has never been any animals bred in this sanctuary, that isn’t what it’s about for them, they simply want to give a forever home to these beautiful creatures whom have become misfits, burdens and unwanted responsibilities by their handlers. We also saw a cemetery on the sanctuary site. When asked about it, they said that once an animal comes here, it never leaves here. They’ve been offered enormous amounts of money after the animals have passed on to be able to be used for mounts, or have some form of them sold as it might be used as an aphrodisiac in one of the Asian markets. They ALWAYS turn those offers down! The animals come here to live out their lives in peace and stay part of the sanctuary even after they pass.
I highly recommend a visit to these creatures, look into their eyes, laugh with them, the bears are great and put on a wonderful show for us. The monkeys are a hoot, they even have 3 acres dedicated for domestic dogs that are continually dropped off at the sanctuary. Drop by, send them a check, bring them some gifts to keep them doing what they do, become a volunteer or just pass the word along. I know we will.
I’d like to say a special THANK YOU to the volunteers who work here. What you do is amazing and I’m sorry there are horrible humans out in this world that require you to do this sort of work.